~ A guest blog by Bill Moulton ~
The play Agamemnon is the hot topic in the community at the moment. If you know Aeschylus’ work you know this is the first play in a trilogy which leads to a showdown between the old goddesses of claw and fang versus the new goddess of the city. The three plays are called the Oresteia and its finale is final confrontation between poisoned earth and lightning; the law of revenge and the rule of law; the ancient goddess below and a new goddess from Olympus. Having read the Agamemnon before and knowing where the trilogy takes us, I chose to change my perspective this time.
First of all, I concentrated on the Erinyes instead of poor Agamemnon. If you don’t know the story: Agamemnon returns victoriously from Troy to his haunted home. His wife Clytemnestra literally rolls out the red carpet, wraps him in a voluminous bathrobe, shoves him into the tub and stabs him to death. But all along the way I watched for the Erinyes. They are the ancient goddesses of revenge and justice born from the divine ichor (blood) when a son castrated his father. Trying to discern the Erinyes’ story rather than that of poor Agamemnon, I came away with a different view of the play.
Now I am thinking Agamemnon himself really didn’t have anything to do with the play. Clytemnestra’s husband just happened to be a member of such a twisted dysfunctional family that the Erinyes moved in permanently. The family, the House of Atreus, was just a perfect example of the sort of work the Erinyes had to do and the endless cycle of revenge that ensued. The last play in the Oresteia series, The Eumenides, will help end the endless cycle of violence.
One benefit of not concentrating on Agamemnon, the-victim-sacrificed-to-the-Erinyes, during this reading was that I was free to concentrate on all the other victims whom the Erinyes actively avenged:
- I find it interesting the both kidnapped-Helen and sacrificed-Iphigenia became goddesses. And in the Forums at Hour 25 it has been suggested Kassandra received heroic honors alongside her consort Agamemnon in the afterworld (cited from The Heroic Cult of Agamemnon by Gina Salapata).
- Likewise, I wonder at the lack of heroic honors for Agamemnon’s cousins. In accordance with an old family recipe Agamemnon’s cousins were boiled up in a cauldron. Unlike their grandfather Pelops they were NOT reborn with physical perfection and later heroic honors at the Olympic Games.
I then read the play once more, this time concentrating on all the victims, not just the ones over which the Erinyes hovered. In my mind, the Erinyes are most famous as the avengers of matricides, patricides and maintaining order, but, in Agamemnon, we see them involved with punishing adultery, infanticide and the death of a slave. Rather than defending the elder against the younger—as Iris warns Poseidon they will if he takes on Zeus (Iliad XV. 200) —they are defending the young and powerless.
In preparation for this week’s Book Club discussion I read Agamemnon yet again: this time from Kassandra’s point of view. Just reading her lines and skipping the chorus, Kassandra makes a lot more sense. She is an amazing character with an incredible scene which is more than just a plot device. And I couldn’t help but notice the ironic difference between her and her consort. Agamemnon is clueless the whole time he is on stage. Clytemnestra’s gloating, bragging and delight in describing all the ways she’d heard he died just makes it too obvious that the guy is doomed. Oblivious, he dies. On the other hand Kassandra knows all too well what happened is happening and will happen. Yet knowing all, she too dies.
So there it is; I changed my point of view several times lately in re-reading the Agamemnon. Each time brought something new into focus and made the re-read really interesting. That’s how I do it. A friend at Bible-study changes her perspective on the text by concentrating the verbs. Whatever analytical method works best for you, I encourage you to use it, because it will make the reading more fun and more insightful.
Bill Moulton is a life-long independent researcher in Greek Mythology, starting in fourth grade when his fondness for the topic threw off the grading curve. Bill is a graduate of HeroesX and active with Hour 25. He blogs and tweets on Classical Studies.
HTML text of Agamemnon is available at the Center for Hellenic Studies.
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Clytemnestra after the murder, by John Collier: public domain, Wikimedia Commons
Woodcut illustration of Cassandra’s prophecy of the fall of Troy, and her death: Penn Provenance Project, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-2.0
Image and texts accessed July 2015. (CHS link updated March 2021).